Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Being a good neighbour

Hank's occasional snoring sounds like someone gently dragging a heavy shovel along a gravel path.  I can make that comparison because, of the two of us, I'm the one shoveling the iced-over sidewalk in front of our house this morning.  Turns out Hank is a feminist too, especially when he's late for work.

PC2000-8 Shovel
Snow Diggers: more than meets the eye
It is customary in the US to shovel the area in front of your home to prevent the embarrassing slipping over of neighbours and the irritation of blood shed on one's doorstep.  Whilst huffin' and puffin' this morning, I noticed something really nice about my new neighbourhood:

When your neighbour hears you grafting to keep their street hazard-free, they come out and do the same right alongside you.   I met a couple of new neighbours doing this, and we joked about the joys of winter. Pretty soon, between us, our block was looking rather good.

DC law requires property owners to clear snow and ice from sidewalks within eight daylight hours of the snow stopping falling. Perhaps we Brits should all have got our shovels out, sledded over to Heathrow Airport and made the 2010 Xmas holidays memorable for the right reasons!  Manual labour for the public good is just not the kind of civic duty I'm used to in the UK.  

I'm trying to work out if a shoveling law would work in England.  I remember one afternoon, sliding to my friend Emma's home in Kent along a snowy, main road.   Cars were stalling, one after the other, on a single black spot on the icy road.  One bewildered driver had his phone blaring out on hands-free, gripping the wheel whilst a friend talked him through a steep "hill start" on icy tarmac in a manual transmission vehicle.  I noticed the driver's window was open and the terrified chap was chain-smoking, presumably to avoid hyperventilating.

Emma and I wondered if we could help in some way.  Although we couldn't think of any actual assistance we could offer, we waited until the chain-smoker had successfully pulled away before moving on.  As we left, I noticed that the adjacent home had a bedroom light on and a person could be seen, clearly watching the drivers struggling.  I wonder why that person did not come down with some table salt and shake a little into the icy patch.  It also seems unlikely they did not have a shovel, given the size of their well-manicured front garden.  Maybe it just didn't occur to them to take personal responsibility for a public road.  We Brits rely on Government to do this for us - and boy did we feel the consequences of that dependancy in 2011!  Maybe UK residents paid such large taxes last year that we really feel we shouldn't have to help each other out?  Or maybe we just don't want to interfere in the lives of strangers?

I think, of all those options, the last one is actually probably the most likely.  The willingness of a citizen to interfere (for better or worse) in someone else's business might make for some interesting anthropological studies.   Since I'm too lazy to do any such studies, I will now use anecdotes instead.  Call it a perk of being a non-salaried writer.  


Japan. 2000. I'm waiting at a pedestrian crossing on a busy Freeway. A schoolboy on a bike pulls up on the sidewalk beside me as I and a group of Japanese adults wait for the light to change.   The boy looks right, then left.  Seeing no traffic, he prepares to cross illegally.  A car coming from behind us on the right is indicating left onto the Freeway, speeding to make the green light.  The boy on the bike doesn't see the car. Everyone else does.  The boy sets off.  None of the Japanese bystanders move.  The bike clatters to the ground. 

Was the kid hit?


The boy's collar is firmly in my hand.  I'm a hero (at last!) The other pedestrians cheer!   They had been within reach of the child but none of them shouted for him to stop; none of them had grabbed him, although many of them were closer than I was.  My feeling is that the engrained instinct not to interfere in someone else's business delayed them from acting quickly enough to protect the boy themselves. 

The child thanks me and wheels his buckled bike off.  The adults fall silent.


California. 2010.  Hank and I are parking our campervan in the Safeway parking lot when we hear a crunch from above.  A low-hanging tree branch.  Hank climbs up to lift the branch while I reverse.  No progress.  We try to go forwards but all we get is revving and burnt rubber.  Sap seeps down the side of the van.   We are miles away from home and stuck fast.   I feel the hysteria rising.

Could we fix this on our own?


A guy in a green pick-up truck sees our predicament and, unprompted, offer us a chunky, saw-toothed knife.   Hank climbs up and starts hacking.  A crowd gathers.  Do we need a ride home?  A guy in a yellow pick-up asks if we need any help.  We say thank you but we have a saw.  The yellow pick-up driver drives off.  Hank carries on sawing.  The knife is having about the same effect as a nail file.  Onlookers start to be concerned.  At this rate, the guy who lent us the knife will be waiting all day for us to return a blunt stub.

About 15 minutes later, the yellow pick-up returns.   Out of the passenger door emerges a beefy young man carrying a huge tree-saw.

"I couldn't very well leave you out here on your own," yells the driver, over the sound of Hank manicuring the tree.  "So I thought I'd go home and fetch my saw, just in case you hadn't managed to get free.  I brought my nephew here, to give you a hand."

Hank's face lights up.  With the new saw, he lops off the branch within minutes.  I buy the yellow pick-up team a 16-pack of Bud.   

Hank is exhausted as we wave them off.  We decide to camp right there in Safeway's parking lot for the night.  We all sleep soundly. 


1 comment:

  1. Anonymous comment (vi email)

    I find it a worrying phenomenon in the UK. In Germany, where I grew up, similarly to the US you had to clear your little strip of the sidewalk. You could also leave your front door unlocked. Just like you recycled your rubbish. And if you saw someone in need, you didn't assume that they will just want to stab you down.

    I remember only too well when I saw a big bloke blatently shoplift (when I was still a Special Constable) and I just needed one person to stand with me to confront him so it could look like we outnumbered him, *everyone* claimed they either saw nothing or 'couldn't get involved'. So I had to call for backup and lost him in the crowd before they arrived.
    You're certainly not in Kansas anymore... if you know what I mean. Welcome to the real world, where people still watch out for each other ;)


Search This Blog